Landslides and flooding as Utah's 'monsoon season' arrives early (+photos)
Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Residents and agencies are racing to fight debris and water flow caused by an unusually wet "monsoon season" in Utah that has caused slides and the threat of slides from Huntington to Alpine and across the Wasatch Front.
Salt Lake City averages 0.61 inches of rain in July, according to National Weather Service readings taken at Salt Lake airport. As of July 17, readings there totaled 1.15 inches and the month has weeks to go.
Areas like Cottonwood Heights, Sandy and Holladay are reporting three to four inches of rain so far this month.
"It's all about the weather patterns," Grant Weyman, a meteorologist for KSL TV and radio, said.
In June, high level winds from the Northwest were blowing into the state and the weather was in a "holding pattern," with no rain or humidity. Starting around July 4, he said, high level winds came in from the South.
"When that happens in the summer it is called the 'monsoon,'" Weyman said. "The monsoon flow equates to higher humidity, more clouds, more thunderstorms."
Other unusual patterns appeared.
"A typical Utah summer sees periods of dry weather followed by smaller periods of wet weather," he said. "This summer, however, has seen a pattern of consistently wet weather for a couple of weeks."
Beginning Thursday afternoon through Wednesday next week, Weyman said, things should be drying up.
That's welcome news for those who live in the Alpine area, where another storm like Tuesday's could cause water to spill over retention structures. Flooding affected one home and threatened two others with water nearly reaching over the Jersey Barrier. But the pounding rain and water levels abated.
In 2012 fires burned in Alpine and in Huntington, site of this week's landslide closing SR 31, leaving burn scars and no vegetation to stop the flow of water and debris during a storm.
Preventative measures by officials in both areas kept the damage to a minimum.
The city of Alpine spent more than $200,000 to guard homes against flooding, according to Lone Peak Fire Batallion Chief Joe McRae. They built concrete walls and Jersey barriers to slow down and redirect the water away from homes.
"Last night that worked very well," McRae said Wednesday.
Jeff Smith, lives below the burn scar in Alpine where the Quail Fire burned last year. Water filled the window wells of his home up two and a half feet Tuesday, he said, but the windows were sealed so well that the water did not enter.
As far as Smith is concerned, the city did its best to prepare for the rain.
Beyond a lawn lined with purple, white and yellow flowers, about a dozen cardboard boxes sat in the dirt lot, Tuesday. These boxes and a few rugs airing out on the porch were among the few reminders of a storm that passed through one night earlier.
He is now trying to build up dirt barricades to protect his home against future storms.
Minus vegetation, there is nothing to catch rainfall and "intercept the process" of runoff, Richard Giraud of the Utah Geologic Survey said. He studies debris flow and landslides in Utah and participated in mapping potential landslides.
He participated in the mapping of the 75-square miles affected by the burn in the Manti-La Sal area and identified areas at risk for a landslide, taking "corrective measures" after the damage from 2012's debris flows in the Huntington area.
The Utah Department of Transportation placed riprap — blankets embedded with angular rocks — to slow water and use culverts to curb divert the flow of water, according to Kevin Kitchen, regional communications manager for region IV of the Utah Department of Transportation.
They will continue to wage a "constant fight with mother nature" until the vegetation can grow enough to slow the flow of water, he said.
"It really is a combined and concerted effort" between the forest service, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Safety, he said.
"The problem is that those mountains have absorbed about as much water as they can," McRae said.
"We're just praying that we don't get a major amount of water," McRae said.
If they do, he said, "we can try to do the best job that we can to direct it."
In the aftermath of a storm in Huntington Tuesday, debris covered about one and a half miles of highway on state road 31.
Worst locations were the same places affected in the flooding after last year's Seeley fire in the Manti-La Sal National Forest near Huntington. The riprap they placed last year washed out at mile 27.6 and the river that runs adjacent to the roadway is starting to erode under the road just past milepost 30. They have shut the road down until it is safe to pass.
It takes "a few years of good growing conditions" for a forest to be able to effectively manage runoff, Giraud said.
In the meantime, officials and residents need to watch and wait.
"Nature does regenerate. It may not regenerate on the time scale that humans want, but it definitely does happen," Giraud said.
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